For many contemporary bars, ice has become one of the most critical and complicated elements of a serious cocktail program. Good ice, which is to say clear cubes carved by hand or produced by specialty machine, not only ensures a quality cocktail but also one that meets or exceeds guest expectations. It also shows well on social media — a crucial marketing tool for the industry — and helps justify the ever-increasing prices that craft cocktails command throughout the country.
Yet balanced against an understandable desire for the best-quality, best-looking ice possible is the very real fact that premium ice requires specialized equipment and/or labor-intensive techniques to produce, leaving many bars either staring at eye-watering start-up prices or turning to dedicated ice purveyors to meet their needs.
But is good ice really all that important? Or can bars still find success without the investment? We spoke with bartenders, bar managers, and operators to get a feel for the role that ice plays in their bar programs depending on their markets, why they do or do not invest heavily in their ice programs, and how their customers do or do not respond to high-quality ice.
Need versus Nice-to-Have
In the hothouse that is the New York City cocktail scene, elaborate ice programs are often viewed as table stakes for cocktail bars, especially newcomers. For the newly launched Tigre in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Premiere Enterprises managing partner and executive bar director William Elliott knew that a different take from his iconic Brooklyn bar Maison Premiere was needed. “Maison Premiere doesn’t have large-format ice, and even when we opened 13 years ago that was kind of a leap of faith” Elliott says, “but with the more architectural focus at Tigre, we need certain kinds of ice and glassware to convey the modern, minimalist look we’re going for.”
For Atlanta’s Jeff Banks, premium ice became so important to him that he started a business around it. “I’ve been managing bars for 15 years, but I originally got into high-end ice when I was opening Brush Sushi Izakaya,” he says. “At the time, there was only one guy delivering clear ice in Atlanta, and he would deliver half a block, which is 150 pounds, and just drop it off.” Processing the block of ice would take hours to complete for the relatively small bar. “I saw the need for a proper business when he delivered at 6 p.m. on a Friday, so suddenly I have to stop what I’m doing to break down all this ice while people are at the bar,” Banks says.
“We get a ton of business travelers from bigger markets like Chicago and New York, and when they come to our bar and see [our ice program], it adds buy-in. They say, ‘I underestimated you, you’re a real cocktail bar, you’re legit.’”
Banks’ company, King Cube, now supplies over 60 Atlanta-area bars and restaurants with ready-to-use cubes, spheres, and other shapes of clear ice, producing over 9,000 pounds of ice a week in a process that takes over three days from start to finish.
Within his market, the impact of that ice can vary widely based on where in the Atlanta metro area a bar is located. “Inside the perimeter, a lot more people sort of expect clear ice from a higher-end cocktail bar,” Banks says of the area that encompasses the city center. “Especially with the bourbon boom, where bars are serving $50, $75, $100 pours, those should be served on something that is really high-end as well,” he adds. “Outside the perimeter, where clear ice hasn’t been widely available on a wider range, some people don’t really understand it yet, and we have to explain that you can’t really get this clarity when you make it at home.”
A Calculated Risk
There’s one way in which large pieces of super-clear ice have an obvious impact: communicating that the bar program employing them is one to take seriously. For operators in smaller markets, that buy-in is well worth the cost. “Fort Wayne is a smaller market that’s not viewed as a destination for food and beverage,” says Trevor Scovel, creative director and CEO of Indiana’s Be Better Hospitality. “We get a ton of business travelers from bigger markets like Chicago and New York, and when they come to our bar and see [our ice program], it adds buy-in. They say, ‘I underestimated you, you’re a real cocktail bar, you’re legit.’”
Large cubes in particular can also provide a platform for a bar to further captivate the drinker. “I’ve always seen like the two-inch cube as kind of a canvas that allows you to garnish a cocktail in a slightly more creative way,” says Ben Purvis, beverage director at Portland, Ore., bars Fools and Horses, Pink Rabbit, and Dirty Pretty. “You can lay something beautiful across it, whether it’s flowers, or, you know, a tiny little origami crane. It could be anything that can just bounce on top of there.” Those are the kinds of flourishes that can create an indelible impression on drinkers, locals or visitors alike.
“Just like a chef cares about the flame they’re using, a bartender has to care about the way we ‘cook’ a drink.”
In other markets, that added cost makes an elaborate ice program unworkable. For Harry Jamison, manager at a.kitchen + bar in Philadelphia, the unique conditions in Pennsylvania play a major role. “In this state, our liquor costs are much higher than in other states because of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, so I think there is less of a margin for spending money on things like ice programs or high-prep ingredients,” he says. As such, Jamison argues that there aren’t a lot of bars in Philadelphia that have fancy ice programs, but it doesn’t seem to hurt business. “Since it’s a novelty, I feel like most guests look at nice ice as something that makes a good Instagram post rather than something that they are expecting.”
While large-format cubes and purchased ice might prompt some disagreement among thoughtful operators and bartenders, where the community is united is in the critical and underappreciated role that high-quality ice plays in drink construction. “Just like a chef cares about the flame they’re using, a bartender has to care about the way we ‘cook’ a drink,” says Scovel. “When you’re ‘cooking’ the drink, the ice you’re using, that’s where the quality really matters.” Purvis highlights what almost all bartenders consider the industry standard, noting that “one-inch draft ice is the best because whether you’re stirring in a mixing glass or shaking a cocktail, the surface area of those cubes are just gonna cool down the cocktail the quickest with the right amount of dilution to the best of your ability.”
In the end, the choices a bar makes about ice have significant impacts on the entire drinking experience. Premium ice can make a drink look better in real life (and on social media), and it can even heighten the drinking experience, but it can also raise expectations and costs at the same time. It’s also not a guarantee in and of itself of a great drink any more than a waxed mustache and suspenders were in 2009. As with every element of a modern cocktail program, different bars can reasonably reach different conclusions about the utility and necessity of premium ice, but its ability to enrich the guest experience and communicate a sense of authority and attention to detail make it compelling for many and a must for most.